How one woman invented the automatic dishwasher & saved us all countless hours of drudgery

Invention of the dishwasher - Josephine Garis Cochrane

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The invention of the dishwasher was a kitchen game-changer, and cleanly earned its inventor, Josephine Garis Cochrane, a spot-free finish in history.

This Victorian-era invention is not just a must-have appliance in almost every home today, but it’s also at the foundation of the venerable KitchenAid brand.

One unintended consequence: It sparked a continuous debate in households across the country over how to properly load the thing.

A woman pioneered the first automatic dishwasher (1968)

The Press-Tribune (Roseville, California) May 17, 1968

Doing dishes by hand is a chore from which women have long sought relief. And, appropriately enough, it was a woman who pioneered doing them automatically.

History credits Mrs. Josephine Garis Cochrane [also spelled Cochran], an imaginative lady in the Midwest, for devising a machine in the 1880s to do her dishes. The dishwashing device was simply a box-like affair with a motor and pulley-driven pump to pump the water that sprayed the dishes.

How one woman invented the automatic dishwasher - Josephine Cochrane

Soon after her invention, Mrs. Cochrane discovered a demand for bigger dishwashing machines for restaurants. A small workforce began turning out both hand-operated and electrically-powered machines.

Convincing evidence of their effectiveness came during the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. She sold all of the dish-washing machines used in the concessions in this World’s Fair.

In competition with United States and foreign inventions, the nine machines received a diploma and medal “For best mechanical construction, durability and adaptation to their line of work.”

Mrs. Cochrane died in 1914. At that time, the business she founded had grown in importance as a supplier of dishwashers to restaurant, hotel and institutional kitchens.

Garis Cochran’s automatic dishwasher made a splash at the World’s Fair/Columbian Exposition of 1893

Adapted from an article by the US Patent & Trademark Office Chief Communications Officer

Ingenuity was very much on display in Machinery Hall, at the edge of the Great Basin, where a variety of American inventions were on display, including the telegraph, the phonograph, and Eli Whitney’s cotton gin (patented one hundred years earlier).

But it was another, more recent invention that was turning heads and drawing admirers. Into this strange-looking contraption of gears, belts, and pulleys would vanish a cage full of over 200 dirty dishes, only to reappear two minutes later as clean as if they had been hand-washed.

Called the Garis-Cochran Dishwashing Machine, it was the only invention on display invented by a woman, and there were nine others just like it being used in the exposition’s many restaurants, from the Big Kitchen to the New England Clam Bake.

The exposition’s judges were so impressed with the dishwashing machine that they awarded it the highest prize for “best mechanical construction, durability, and adaptation to its line of work.” It was just the kind of break the machine’s inventor, a widowed entrepreneur named Josephine G. Cochran, needed.

Garis-Cochran Dish Washing Machine Company

Born March 8, 1839 in Ashtabula County, Ohio, Josephine was the daughter and granddaughter of inventors and engineers. Her maternal grandfather, a Revolutionary War veteran named John Fitch, invented the first patented steamboat in the United States, and her father, John Garis, was a civil engineer who supervised a number of woolen mills, sawmills, and gristmills along the Ohio River.

When faced with a problem, Josephine was by nature and upbringing determined to find a technological solution — and if one didn’t exist, to invent it.

But opportunities to innovate were rare for 19th century American women who still lacked even the right to vote, and Josephine married right out of school at the age of 19, to William A. Cochran. They had two children together: a son, Hallie, who died at age two, and a daughter, Katharine.

Having failed to strike it rich in the California Gold Rush, William eventually prospered in the dry goods business. He moved his family into a mansion in Shelbyville, Illinois, and Josephine took on the role of socialite with enthusiasm and industry.

For the grand dinner parties they often hosted, she loved to use a collection of heirloom dishes purportedly dating back to the 1600s, but was distressed when she discovered the servants had chipped the dishes while washing them.

Initially, Josephine resolved to wash the fine china herself, but soon became tired of this tedious task. She was convinced there had to be a mechanical solution that would make the job easier not just for herself, but others as well.

“If nobody else is going to invent a dishwashing machine, I’ll do it myself,” she vowed, quickly sketching out a design.

Around the same time, Josephine’s husband, who struggled with alcoholism, took ill and died in 1883, leaving her with just $1,500 and mounting debt. Suddenly, her invention of a viable dishwashing machine was no longer a dream but an urgent financial necessity.

Josephine Garis Cochrane - Dishwasher inventor

The World’s Columbian Exposition that year presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to gain publicity and new sales for her dishwashing machine, and it worked like a charm. Orders spiked from restaurants and hotels throughout Illinois and neighboring states, and Josephine later found willing customers in hospitals and colleges due to their strict sanitation requirements.

The large-sized model of the Garis-Cochran dishwasher could wash and dry 240 dishes in two minutes, freeing staff from dishwashing duty and saving businesses vast amounts of money as a result.

Around 1898, Josephine opened her own factory, and began Cochran’s Crescent Washing Machine Company, expanding sales of her dishwashers to businesses as far away as Alaska and Mexico.

In spite of her best efforts, domestic models still cost about $350, which was too expensive for most households, many of which also lacked a boiler large enough to handle the amounts of hot water required. Her most reliable customers continued to be hotels and restaurants.

Josephine’s journey as an inventor and entrepreneur was not an easy one, nor was she the type to ever rest on her laurels. On August 3, 1913, at age 74, she died at home in Chicago — by most accounts, from a stroke or “nervous exhaustion.”

Among the lengthy obituaries and tributes to appear in the days after her death, one prominent publication noted that her “untiring efforts and remarkable ability have built up a large and profitable manufacturing business.”

“We hear only praises of her machine and among those who are personally acquainted with Mrs. Cochrane come words of the greatest admiration, respect and honor, and we feel all these are due one who has so persistently and successfully battled with the world, especially when the business pathway is not always made particularly easy for a woman to cope with.”

Josephine Garis Cochrane - dish washer invention patent 355139

The inventor of the dish washing machine (1892)

The Wichita Daily Eagle (Wichita, Kansas) May 6, 1892

The patron saint of the emancipated woman of the future will be Josephine Garis Cochrane [Cochran], the inventor of the dishwashing machine.

She will be enshrined in the grateful heart of womanhood when the memory of Susan B Anthony and the rest is lost in oblivion, and at the base of every column reared to commemorate the noble achievements of free and happy women her name should be written in shining letters.

Josephine Cochrane was an extremely pretty western girl, eagerly interested in the most flippant affairs of society, with all the money she wanted to spend, all the pleasures she desired, with no dishes to wash for herself, and no anxiety about the women who did have to roughen their fingers in the suds.

In due time, she married, like other pretty girls, but it was not until after the death of her husband that the idea of the machine came to her.

She doesn’t know exactly how or when it came; she only knows that it pursued her and tormented her until she began to work it out.

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Josephine Garis Cochrane Dishwasher 1908

She did not know the name of a tool or the principles of transmitted power, and she had no idea of drawing or constructing a model. She had to get the elementary books and sit down like a child and study before she could make her ideas tangible to the mechanics who carried them out.

She worked at her models nearly eight years, spent her entire fortune, $25,000, on the device, and finally succeeded in perfecting this wonderful dishwasher that never nicks or chips your precious plates, has no antipathy to handles on cups; that never loses its temper, asks for days off, nights out or permission to go to relatives’ funerals; that doesn’t serve your choicest wines to kitchen callers, borrow your Sunday things or give warning when your husband’s relatives are coming on a visit.

Just now the machine is in use only in the large hotels, where it washes in an hour the entire service for 400 guests, but Mrs. Cochrane is forming a company to manufacture smaller sizes for private houses. – New York Sun

Garis-Cochrane Dish Washing Machine (1909 & 1908)

Garis Cochrane dishwasher 1909

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